As the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence drew near, twilight was fast approaching for two living American icons. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were dying. Former presidents both, of course, but more than that, the two had been catalysts at every major step in the formation and advancement of the infant United States: the arguments for freedom, the break from England, the writing of the Declaration of Independence, the Revolution, the Constitution, the early years of a new republic. But now the mortal sojourn was drawing to a close for these two men of immense capacity.
They had been invited to numerous Fourth of July celebrations in 1826, but each was too weak to attend any of them. Adams was asked for some thoughts that local leaders could share during the Quincy, Mass., festivities. “I will give you,” Adams proclaimed, “Independence forever!” When asked if would like to say anything else, he replied, “Not a word.”
Jefferson composed a letter that was shared widely across the country. He wrote, in part:
May it be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all) the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government…. All eyes are opened or opening to the rights of man. The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few, booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately by the grace of God. These are the grounds of hope for others; for ourselves, let the annual return to this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.
Neither was expected to live to the Fourth, but both men did. As Adams lay breathing with great difficulty, efforts were made to make him more comfortable by changing his position. He awoke and, told that it was the Fourth, said clearly, “It is a great day. It is a good day.”
Jefferson had been unconscious since the night of July 2 at his Monticello home. Around 7 p.m. on the third, he woke up and declared, “This is the Fourth!” He was told it would be soon, and went back to sleep. He was roused two hours later to be given more medicine, but refused. Jefferson died around 1 p.m. on July 4, 1826, fifty years to the day since the signing of the Declaration of Independence, of which he was the principle author.
At about 6:20 p.m. that evening, Adams died. An all-day rain and thunderstorm produced one final clap of thunder that shook the house. Soon after, wrote John Marston, a local townsman and friend, the sun emerged “bursting forth … with uncommon splendor at the moment of his exit … with a sky beautiful and grand beyond description.”